It’s dreadful that we still argue over the purpose of the Southern Confederacy.
And it’s pathetic that many people continue to perpetuate falsehoods about the meaning of the symbols used to bolster its foundation. It was based on the egregious notion of white supremacy and a desire to keep black people perpetually enslaved.
This debate cropped up again when board members of the Gouverneur & St. Lawrence County Fair voted earlier this year to prohibit vendors from selling Confederate flags. In a story published May 30 by the Watertown Daily Times, fair manager Donald A. Peck said the board took this action in response to a letter received last year from state Department of Agriculture & Markets Commissioner Richard A. Ball.
This letter was sent to those groups overseeing the fairs in all 52 counties of the state. It asked fair organizers not to offer “items that run counter to our great state’s long history of inclusion for all.”
“We respectfully urge you to join us in this effort and ensure that all of our fairs are a safe gathering place for our families and community members,” the letter stated. “New York state stands firm against bias and intolerance of all kinds and our fairs, which are a critical component of our agricultural economy and social fabric of our communities, should represent the very best of New York.”
A group called Fair for All, based in Delaware County, requested the state to ask county fair organizers to ban the sale of Confederate flags. It rightly described the flag as a symbol of slavery, racism and hate.
County fairs are overseen by private organizations, so the state can’t mandate what items they can offer for sale and which ones they cannot — but it provides funding for county fairs. There’s a temptation for state officials to use this money as a way to get what they want, which raises troubling issues pertaining to the U.S. Constitution.
An argument can be made that withholding state funding from some county fairs while offering it to others based on what merchandise is sold runs counter to the Equal Protection clause. The fairs aren’t forced by law to ban Confederate flags, however, so claims of First Amendment violations are shaky at best.
But let’s test the free speech principles of those who oppose banning Confederate flags. Would they support items bearing the images of Che Guevara or Mao Zedong to be sold at county fairs?
The more interesting question is why in the world anyone would want to sell, buy or display a Confederate flag. Southern states seceded from the Union because they feared the North would use its influence to abolish slavery.
These states wanted to keep this evil institution intact so that benefactors could enjoy a life of prosperity and comfort at the expense of millions of other humans.
Here is what Mississippi said about secession: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the Earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin ...”
Alexander Stephens, who was vice president of the Confederate States of America, proclaimed in his “Cornerstone Speech” in March 1861: “The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. ... [I]ts foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”
Following the Civil War, journalist Edward Pollard attempted to alter the obscene history of the South with his book “The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates.” He promoted the nobility of this heritage, and his lies took root.
They still resonate today.
People wishing to sell or buy Confederate flags should first address a few issues. In establishing the Confederacy, here is what many Southerners believed:
n Black people are sub-humans who should be forever enslaved to whites.
n It’s best to deprive black people of any education to maintain their subservient condition.
n Slavery benefits black people by helping them to become civilized.
n Runaway slaves should be viciously tortured if they attempt to live as free people.
n Black families may be torn apart to increase their owners’ wealth.
n White masters have every right to repeatedly rape black girls and women.
This is what the Confederacy stood for, and displaying its flag is an endorsement of such ideas. So let the rebels yell loudly and proudly: “I’m a white supremacist, and society needs to keep black people in their place!”
The violence committed in preserving white supremacy is well known and should dissuade anyone from wishing to identify with this racist ideology. The relentless oppression of black people has often been done using two abhorrent symbols: the swastika and the Confederate flag. Those who wisely object to displaying the Confederate flag should show its supporters a map and point out that denial is not a river in Egypt.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.